How I See It: Over the years, Fairfield Public Library still stacks up
Published 7:39 am, Saturday, April 18, 2015
One of the first things I did upon moving to Fairfield in the late 1970s was to get a library card. I was raised to be comfortable in a room full of books, and had depended heavily on libraries throughout my schooling. I expected to be an active user, but this was not to be -- until the past few years. Being permanently unemployed tends to clear one's schedule, and the Fairfield Public Library is increasingly filling the gaps.
Our library has a venerable history. Its predecessor, the Fairfield Memorial Library, was founded in 1876 and housed 600-plus volumes in the Old Academy building in its former location on the Post Road (it was moved to the Town Green in the late '50s after being saved from demolition). The Memorial Library, a "private, nonprofit" in today's parlance, supported itself with the help of local benefactors and $1 annual membership dues.
In 1903, the library moved into new digs on the southeast corner of the Post Road and Old Post Road, where it still stands after undergoing several renovations and expansions. In 1950, the town assumed control of its operations, and it became the Fairfield Public Library. The Fairfield Woods branch opened its doors in 1969, and the historic Pequot Library in Southport serves as a branch library through an annual grant from the town.
My own library use suffered badly under the demands of work and family, and my library card languished in the squalid netherworld of my wallet. But inevitably, moments came when I needed information that only a library could provide. Like the little-used veteran at the end of the dugout bench, it forgave my inattention and was always prepared to take the field and flash its skills.
Those occasional times in past years that I called upon the library for help were both reassuring and humbling -- reassuring because the library ran stride for stride with the information and technology revolution, and humbling because my dated conceptions of "library" always needed touching up. On one visit after a long gap, I pulled out my vintage library card to check out a book. The young lady behind the counter looked it over like I had handed her a Sanskrit relic.
"Wow, I've never seen one of these," she said, and excused herself to show it to her co-workers. As they inspected the card, they shot glances at the Rip van Winkle wannabe at the counter. I was sent home with my book and a newfangled bar-coded plastic card.
Another time, I walked in to locate a particular book and wandered around looking for the card catalog. It had apparently disappeared. Miffed, I went to the information desk, where I was politely directed to an unassuming terminal on a counter behind me. The massive cabinet with its vast collection of subject, title and author cards had been replaced by a vastly more powerful and user-friendly online catalog.
Now that I'm retired, I'm going to the library more and more -- and I can even go when I stay home. The library's website -- www.fairfieldpubliclibrary.org -- grants access to its complete catalog, as well as an array of research databases. If you locate a book that you want, you can reserve it online. If our library doesn't have it, chances are you can get it through an interlibrary loan. Some books are completely digitized for online reading. Fairfield Public Library cardholders have free and open access to the libraries at Fairfield and Sacred Heart universities.
The library's embrace of technology certainly contributes to its appeal (I cannot now imagine how I had the patience for card catalogs), but its true value to the community is broad and deep. A few statistics will demonstrate that the library is not only high-tech, it's high-touch, and no secret to Fairfield residents of all ages. Last year:
The library had more than 550,000 unique visits, at a rate of over nine visits per Fairfield resident -- almost twice the state average rate.
Librarians (the Zen masters of information retrieval) fielded more than 100,000 reference questions at twice the statewide rate.
600 people attended 32 free technology classes at the library.
Adult public library computers were accessed 65,000 times, for 2.7 million minutes. Kinko's would have charged $810,000 for that service.
More than 3,000 Fairfield teens have a library card (with bar codes, I bet), and borrow 3,500 items per month from the Teen Room.
The Fairfield Woods Branch is the busiest branch library in the state.
If you haven't been to the main library (or the branch) in a while, I recommend a visit, as well as a peek at the library's program offerings. From the children's library, to the Teen Room, to the art gallery, to the periodical room, to the author talks, to the bulletin board covered with programs, and, of course, to the all-knowing librarians, our library is a cornerstone resource that enriches our town and our citizens, young and old.
The library's total operating budget amounts to less than 1.5 percent of the total, most of which is for staff salaries. Our community must jealously protect our first-rate library by budgeting sufficient funds to prevent any reductions in library hours, and to acquire new books (print and audio), and DVDs, as well as update other materials such as travel books.
I'm proud of, and amazed by, the Fairfield Public Library. And I love my bar code.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "How I See It" appears periodically. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.